POLITICS DECEMBER 1, 2010
There’s no question that many of the Wikileaks documents are a great read. These diplomatic conversations between American officials and leaders from the Arab world, China, and Europe provide important insights about the subtleties of U.S. policy and the complexities of dealing with different personalities and governments around the world. But the disclosures are not just interesting; they are also ironic. That’s because they undermine the very worldview that Julian Assange and his colleagues at Wikileaks almost certainly support. (Click here to read all of TNR's obsessive coverage of the juicy State Department cables.)
By and large, the hard left in America and around the world would prefer to see the peaceful resolution of disputes rather than the use of military force. World peace, however, is a lot harder to achieve if the U.S. State Department is cut off at the knees. And that is exactly what this mass revelation of documents is going to do. The essential tool of State Department diplomacy is trust between American officials and their foreign counterparts. Unlike the Pentagon, which has military forces, or the Treasury Department, which has financial tools, the State Department functions mainly by winning the trust of foreign officials, sharing information, and persuading. Those discussions have to be confidential to be successful. Destroying confidentiality means destroying diplomacy. (Click here to view a slideshow of the silliest, scariest, and most NSFW Wikileaks.)
This is not to say there isn’t an important place for quality journalism that may, at times, rely on sensitive diplomatic exchanges or that seeks particular information through leaks. Without such journalism, the American public would have never known about the abuses at Abu Ghraib or the electronic surveillance programs of the National Security Agency that became rightly controversial during the Bush administration. In those cases, there was a higher principle at stake than protecting the secrecy of diplomatic exchanges. Government-sponsored torture or domestic spying on U.S. citizens without legal oversight are profound questions of policy that merit substantial public knowledge. But, in the undifferentiated mass disclosure of diplomatic conversations, there is no higher principle to merit damaging the foundations of American diplomacy.
Fortunately, there is little or no discussion in the cables, as yet, of the Middle East peace process. Would the supporters of Wikileaks want secret Middle East diplomacy to promote peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis to be made public, too? Do they have any understanding of how difficult it is for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make the compromises necessary for peace under the glare of public pressure? My guess is the special envoy for President Obama, former Senator George Mitchell, has created a separate reporting channel for his discussions with Arab and Israeli leaders, outside the normal State Department diplomatic channels. But had he not done so, there is every reason to believe that Wikileaks would have dumped that information, along with the other 250,000 cables. Would the likely outcome of such disclosures—the imperiling of the peace process—really have been something that accorded with the left’s professed goals in the Middle East?
There’s another irony here, too. The Wikileaks document dump, unlike the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, shows that American private communication with foreign leaders by and large reflects the same sentiments offered by U.S. officials in public. There is no grand conspiracy, no grand hypocrisy to uncover and expose. The big hypocrisies here are not being perpetrated by Americans; they are being perpetrated by foreign governments, namely non-democratic ones.
Yet those on the hard left are usually the loudest critics of America imposing its own values, its own way of doing business, and its own culture on other countries. For better or worse, in many parts of the world there’s a big difference between what government officials are prepared to do publicly and what they’re prepared to say and do privately. We may wish it otherwise, but those are the realities faced by U.S. officials. The hard left, so quick to demand that America accept other countries’ political systems, now seems blind to the fact that other governments want to have the right to say one thing in public and a different thing in private. By respecting that difference, American diplomats are doing their job. Surely the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, would prefer for Arab leaders to be as honest and open and transparent as we are in our country. Until such democratic values come to the Arab world, however, we have to work with what we’ve got. U.S. diplomacy has been damaged, not destroyed; it will recover after a time. But for now, Wikileaks is making diplomacy’s task a whole lot harder.
James P. Rubin teaches international affairs at Columbia University. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Clinton administration.